Tina Turner’s eras-spanning catalog of pop, rock, and R&B hits forms the backbone of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical (★★★☆☆), which just shimmied into the National Theatre, three stops into a 30-city national tour.
But the show’s creators, including book writer Katori Hall, a Pulitzer winner for her drama The Hot Wing King, don’t seem to have been too sure what to do with Turner’s cache of classics, succeeding only half the time at persuasively reimagining the songs within the context of the singer’s tumultuous life story.
You know the story, told via Turner’s multiple memoirs, plus the beloved 1993 biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It and the stellar 2021 documentary Tina, not to mention semi-autobiographical songs like “Nutbush City Limits.”
Tina the musical turns “Nutbush City Limits” into a rousing spiritual, dominated by the gospel wail of Ann Nesby portraying Tina’s Gran Georgeanna. One of the savvier uses of Turner’s catalog, the number introduces young Anna-Mae Bullock (a delightful Ayvah Johnson), a little girl with a big voice, from a broken home in rural Tennessee.
In another crafty use of an early hit, teenage Anna-Mae, played on press night by the equally big-voiced Naomi Rodgers (the role is played on select nights by Zurin Villanueva), is introduced by sister Alline (Parris Lewis) to the faster scene in St. Louis at a dance set to “Shake a Tail Feather.”
The combination of ’50s-flavored rock, energetic cast, solid offstage band led by music director Anne Shuttlesworth, and Anthony Van Laast’s spirited choreography ignites the show’s first sing-along dance party.
But life’s not always a party. Soon, Anna-Mae meets Ike, the rakish, raging R&B bandleader played rather broadly by Garrett Turner. Ike dubs his protegée Tina Turner, and, though she falls for a different member of his band, they’re soon married in music and in life.
Banging hard on every beat of the couple’s storyline of abuse and betrayal, Garrett Turner’s Ike crouches and pounces, and croaks out his songs. Rodgers carries any genuine passion and pathos transmitted by Ike and Tina’s doomed romance.
She also carries the tremendous weight of embodying a rock star known as one of the most electrifying live performers of all time. Rodgers doesn’t look or sound like Tina, and only in those instances that she clearly aims for the singer’s singular diction does she sing like Tina, but she still sings the roof off the theater, while selling Van Laast’s non-stop choreography, as well as the touching comeback story.
Roz White offers nuanced support as Anna-Mae’s distant mother Zelma, and Aliyah Caldwell, Reyna Guerra, and Takia Hopson are a gas as the indefatigable Ikettes. Taylor A. Blackman contributes a silky smooth take on “Let’s Stay Together,” a song that slots into the plot better than, say, “Better Be Good to Me,” which feels forced, despite Rodgers’ searing rendition.
Several songs seem crammed into place within the story, none more so than “Private Dancer,” which opens the second act and Tina’s post-Ike life with a confusingly literal interpretation of its lyrics about a taxi dancer. Tina mentions cleaning houses to make ends meet, but are Hall and co-writers Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins suggesting she also was a prostitute? Again, the song is well-sung, though the context is shaky.
The production, stiffly adopting Phyllida Lloyd’s original West End and Broadway staging on a sparse set of colorful flats and pieces of rolling furniture, hits best when Tina doesn’t try to re-interpret Turner’s songs, but instead deploys them as straight-up concert performances. Just let Rodgers and company blaze through “Proud Mary,” and the crowd will go home happy.
Tina: The Tina Turner Musical runs through Oct. 23 at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Tickets are $65 to $115. Call 202-628-6161, or visit www.thenationaldc.org.
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